In his review of Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, Hari Kunzru maintains that what separates this novel from the postmodern novels Lethem clearly admires is that "it’s too good-humored to attain real satiric bite and is often content to drop a name instead of wrestling with the slippery ideas that might make Lethem’s heroes worthy of a true fan’s regard." This is probably right, although to say that the novel lacks "satiric bite" doesn't mean it is not still essentially an attempt at satire, just as it's true that while Chronic City doesn''t especially wrestle with "slippery ideas," the claim that so-called "systems novels"--a term coined by Thomas LeClair in his book on Don DeLillo, In the Loop--can be defined by their own grappling with such ideas is altogether questionable.
Lethem's work is often associated with the first generation postmodernists, particularly Pynchon, Barth, and DeLillo, as mediated by the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and superhero comic books. This amalgamation of high postmodernism and popular literature seems to be, in fact, what most readers and critics take to be his signature variation on postmodernism in fiction. However, while it may be the case that Lethem is inspired by the postmodernists to create his brand of literary fantasy fiction, there isn't much that's especially innovative about a book like Chronic City. It seems more like a tired pastiche of postmodernism than an attempt to extend the reach of postmodern experiment into a different era and changed circumstances.
Kunzru maintains that Lethem "knows he’s writing belatedly and wants us to know he knows" and that this gesture perhaps makes the novel "a conscious tribute of some kind, a love letter to the writing that inspired Lethem to become a writer." If John Barth initiated postmodernism by positing a "literature of exhaustion" that exploited the "used-upness" of fictional form to generate new forms, Kunzru's suggestion might indicate that Lethem is in his own way converting postmodernism itself into an "exhausted" source of formal development, at least for his own work, except that, where Barth and company forced a new attention on form, style, and narrative strategy, Lethem settles for vaguely surreal machinations of plot (providing what some want to call an "alternative reality") and loudly "colorful" characters (most of them given obviously Pynchon-derived names). There is otherwise nothing that could be called formal innovation in a novel like Chronic City, nothing that really challenges readers to examine their assumptions about the form.
Lethem's status as an experimental writer, then, seems entirely based on his incorporation of genre fiction narrative conventions into novels that have generally been accepted as "serious" fiction. The plot devices of detective stories and science fiction allow Lethem to ostensibly bypass the requirements of ordinary realism, providing for an approach that blends caricature and pseudo-fantasy to produce what in my view can best be described as whimsy. But whimsy is not exactly a postmodern mode, and in Chronic City it betrays a certain aesthetic timidity. I think I agree with William Deresiewicz, who in his review of the novel comments that Lethem "wants realism, with the credibility it brings--wants us to take the world of the novel as a faithful copy of the world we know--but he also wants to stack the deck by deploying supernatural elements whenever he finds it convenient." Thus the New York City portrayed in the narrative needs to be recognizable enough as New York City that we are able to associate the events and themes with the real place but not so much that the author can't introduce runaway tunnel robots, an illusory space mission doomed by the presence of Chinese space mines, or snow in August.
This sort of contained fantasia can't really be what the postmodernists had in mind as an alternative to conventional realism, nor is it credible as a revision or reorientation of postmodern challenges to inherited practice. It implies that postmodern experiment was simply a strategy designed to undermine the principle of verisimilitude, so that any work not strictly observing the rules of traditional realism could be called "experimental." And while Lethem's work is consistent with much postmodern fiction in that it is essentially comic, the comedy of a novel like Chronic City is indeed much too gentle, too shy of the more corrosive humor of much postmodern comedy. It isn't so much that the novel is short on "satiric bite" as that ultimately it is merely satire, a relatively mild critique of post-9/11 New York under Bloomberg, which has become inhospitable to its misfits and nonconformists. The postmodern comedy in the work of Pynchon or Barth or Barthelme doesn't seek to "correct" behaviors and institutions that threaten individual autonomy or impede social progress; it portrays such threats and obstructions as inherent to human life and thus unfortunately not much subject to amelioration.
Darby Dixon expresses his disappointment with Chronic City as perhaps the consequence of his own inability as a reader to "patiently dissect its meaning and formulate its connections," to "place [its] ideas and themes on pedestals in whose shadows lurk plot and character." This assumes that what is really at work in this novel is an underlying deep structure of "meaning" and "ideas" the reader must uncover. It further implies that what must make it a suitably postmodern work is precisely this deep structure of "connection." But neither does Lethem's novel conceal any deep meaning not made apparent through choice of satirical targets, nor is this undertow of supposedly abstruse "matter" what animates postmodern fiction. The story of the relationship between narrator Chase Insteadman, former child actor, and Perkus Tooth, former bohemian intellectual now pothead, allows Lethem to canvass his "alernative" New York from top (Insteadman is something of a mascot for the city's high-society types) to bottom and to adjust his satirical focus accordingly. That the purport of the novel's "ideas and themes" doesn't go much beyond this surface satire is in its favor, as we aren't subjected to the kind of tedium the exploration of "ideas" in fiction usually entails. In this way Lethem is actually faithful to his postmodern predecessors: to the extent Barth or Pynchon or DeLillo incorporate ideas, they do so as inspiration for formal or narrative devices ("entropy" in Pynchon's story of that name, for example) rather than as abstractions with which to "wrestle."
However, Chronic City nevertheless suffers from its own kind of tedium, exactly of the sort Darby Dixon identifies when he admits he found it simply "boring." Chronic City never attains the structural or stylistic vitality that would be required for us to suspend our disbelief in its plot contrivances. Its narrative drags along and its narrator's language is leaden and unnecessarily prolix to the extent that I mostly had to force myself to finish the book. The narrator is himself an unengaging figure whose status as a blank slate on which his friend Perkus inscribes a more capacious understanding does not make him a character with whom one wants to spend over 450 pages. And Perkus himself is much less interesting than Lethem wants him to be. He's an essentially stock countercultural type--he likes to discourse on "Monte Hellman, Semina Culture, Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, the Mafia's blackmailing of J. Edgar Hoover over erotic secrets (resulting in the bogus amplification of Cold War fear and therefore the whole of our contemporary landscape), Vladimir Mayakovsky and the futurists, Chet Baker," etc., etc., etc.--and his recurrent cluster headaches and other mental problems make him seem merely pathetic, not heroic.
In his review of Chronic City, Ron Charles acknowledges it is "a tedious reading experience in which redundancy substitutes for development and effect for profundity," but he nonetheless thinks Lethem "proves he's one of the most elegant stylists in the country," offering "perfectly choreographed sentences." I have in the past found Lethem a pleasing enough stylist, but the style exhibited through Chase Insteadman produces sentences that are anything but "perfectly choreographed." Here's Chase in one of his moments of reflection:
I'm outstanding only in my essential politeness. Exhausting, this compulsion to oblige any detected social need. I don't mean only to myself; it's frequently obvious that my charm exhausts and bewilders others, even as they depend upon it to mortar crevices in the social facade--to fill vacant seats, give air to suffocating silences, fudge unease. (I'm like fudge. Or maybe I'm like chewing gum.) But if beneath charm lies exhaustion, beneath exhaustion lies a certain rage. I detect a wrongness everywhere. Within and Without, to quote a lyric. It would be misleading to say I'm screaming inside, for if I was, I'd soon enough find a way to scream aloud. Rather, the politeness infests a layer between me and myself, the name of the wrongness going not only unexpressed but unknown. Intuited only. Forbidden perhaps. Perkus would have called me inchoate. He wouldn't have meant it kindly.
I could have settled for the first sentence. Or perhaps "Perkus would have called me inchoate." These descriptions tell me what I need to know about Insteadman (to the extent I need to have Insteadman telling me about himself in the first place). The rest is just prattle, and by the time I get to "I detect a wrongness" and the politeness infesting a layer "between me and myself" I just want him to shut up.
This sort of inexhaustible self-examination and droning exposition occurs throughout the narrative and more than anything else accounts for the lackluster reading experience Chronic City turned out to be. Perhaps it is a sign of the author trying too hard to create "meaning" and forge "connections," but I don't think so. I think it's just Lethem's failure to execute his "alternative reality" into something more than a labored fantasy.